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Sens. Brown, Portman call for action as GM closes Lordstown plant

By Phoebe Wall Howard • Updated Mar 7, 2019 at 2:59 PM

DEARBORN, Mich. — Top UAW officials and autoworkers met privately Tuesday in Dearborn with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, leaving union members little comfort about General Motors’ move to idle four U.S. factories.

“He pretty much evaded questions when we brought up the issue of plants closing in the U.S.,” said Diana Robertson, 54, of Detroit who works at the Dearborn Truck Plant. “He purposely went back to the president being more interested in keeping jobs in the U.S. To us, that seems like not enough. “

An estimated 250 workers from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana packed into UAW Local 600 to ask Lighthizer, who is President Donald’s Trump’s trade ambassador, about a range of issues.

The meeting came on the eve of GM closing its plant in Lordstown, Ohio. The company is ending production of the Chevrolet Cruze small car at that plant, laying off thousands of workers in the process.

 

Lordstown closing results in loss of 1,700 hourly jobs

After more than 50 years in operation, General Motors will close its Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio at some point this month resulting in the loss of about 1,700 hourly positions.

The Associated Press reports Dan Flores, a spokesperson with the Detroit-based automaker, says that the plant’s parts-stamping work will continue through most of this month. Mark Reuss, GM’s new president as of January, has said that the automaker can’t keep operating a facility responsible for an underperforming vehicle such as the Chevy Cruze.

GM’s Lordstown Plant comes in at 6.2 million square feet, and Flores said the automaker will keep it heated and maintained after it closes so it is ready in case it reopens. A.P. reports that a final decision regarding its future is expected this summer once contract talks with the United Auto Workers open up.

This comes after GM announced in November it would close three assembly plants and two propulsion plants in Michigan, Ohio, Maryland and Ontario by the end of 2019. These closures will result in the loss of about 14,700 jobs including 8,100 white-collar, salaried employees.

UAW filed a formal objection to GM’s announced decisions back in December, saying that the automaker could not close plants citing its current collective bargaining agreement. The union then sued GM in late February, alleging the aforementioned breach of contract in closing plants in Michigan, Ohio and Maryland.

In the lawsuit, UAW used a 2015 letter signed by Catherine Clegg, vice president of public policy at GM, stating that the automaker “will not close, idle, nor partially or wholly sell, spin-off, split-off, consolidate or otherwise dispose of in any form, any plant, asset, or business unit of any type, beyond those which have already been identified.”

At the time of the letter addressed to UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, Clegg signed her position as vice president of manufacturing and labor relations in North America.

UAW also provided a link to its complete complaint in the statement posted to its website on Feb. 26.

As for the potential future of the Lordstown plant, Reuss has said that the automaker is looking at a lot of different options and has said that it is not decided whether the Ohio plant would get a new vehicle, A.P. reports.

Recently, the automaker announced that its Detroit/Hamtramck plant would have its life extended through at least January 2020.

"We are balancing production timing while continuing the availability of Cadillac advanced technology features currently included in the CT6-V, the Blackwing Twin-Turbo V-8 and Super Cruise,” the automaker said in a brief statement on the decision.

“The completion of production for these vehicles had been previously scheduled to occur in June.”

 

Lawmakers react

Ohio’s two U.S. senators expressed dismay at GM’s decision.

“For the first time in nearly 100 years, GM will not have an assembly plant in Ohio, so this is a sad day for our state,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said Wednesday. “For decades, workers in the Mahoning Valley made a commitment to GM, dedicating their lives to this company, and turning Lordstown into an award-winning plant. GM’s decision to shut down production at the plant not only impacts the workers at Lordstown and their families, but thousands of others in the Mahoning Valley who work for suppliers and other businesses that support the plant.

“I remain incredibly frustrated and disappointed with GM’s decision, but I’m not giving up on this plant and these workers. GM says it will produce new 20 new electric vehicles by 2023 and, at the very least, one of those should be in Lordstown. I will continue to press GM executives to recommit to Lordstown, do the right thing by these workers who have given so much to this company, and bring new production to this plant.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) reintroduced his “American Cars, American Jobs” Act.

"We know how devastating that is for the workers, for their families, for local businesses, for the entire community. We also know it doesn’t have to be this way,” Brown said. “We need to overhaul our trade and tax policy, and end this corporate business model where companies like GM close American plants, collect a tax break to move overseas, only to sell those cars back into the U.S. That’s why I’m reintroducing the American Cars, American Jobs Act.”

Brown’s “American Cars, American Jobs” Act would:

• Give customers a $3,500 discount when they buy cars made in America and a $4,500 discount if that American car is electric or a plug-in hybrid;

• Revoke a special GOP tax cut on overseas profits for auto manufacturers that ship jobs overseas.

Brown added a provision that would incentivize the purchase of electric cars after GM announced their intention to launch more than 20 new zero-emissions vehicles by 2023. Brown is encouraging GM to bring one of those products to Lordstown.

Brown said his bill would benefit Ohio companies and workers throughout the auto supply chain. The legislation would put U.S.-made cars on equal footing with foreign-made vehicles and update the tax code to remove incentives for auto companies to offshore jobs.

Nearly 100 vehicles, including all passenger vehicles made in Ohio, qualify for the $3,500 rebate based on the 2018 American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA) list. Six of the nine U.S.-manufactured electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the AALA list qualify for the $4,500 rebate.

Brown and Portman met with GM CEO Mary Barra in December and urged GM to work with them to save Lordstown jobs. After the meeting, both senators followed up with a letter pressing GM to bring a new product to Lordstown and give workers and the community the answers they deserve.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Brown hosted a roundtable with Lordstown workers at UAW Local 1112. Brown was joined at the roundtable by GM workers, as well as workers from local suppliers like MAGNA and Jamestown Industries, who will be harmed by GM’s decision.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) released a statement Thursday after the Commerce Department announced the United States posted an $891.2 billion trade deficit in 2018, the largest in the nation’s 243-year history.

The Commerce Department also announced the trade deficit with China hit a record $419 billion. Economists have agreed that the record trade deficit has been exacerbated by President Trump and the Republican Party’s $1.5 trillion corporate tax cut, which was signed into law in 2017, she said.

The announcement was made the same day General Motors shuttered its Chevy Cruze plant in Lordstown, laying off 5,400 workers in the process. While the Cruze will continue to be a part of the Chevy lineup, the vehicle will continue to be manufactured in China, South Korea, Argentina, and Mexico.

“President Trump made a promise that manufacturing jobs would flow back into the industrial Midwest and wages would rise like never before,” Kaptur said. “Instead, President Trump has not only failed to uphold that promise, his policies have directly led to an explosion in the national trade deficit, manufacturing plants shutting down, and wages literally getting cut in half.

“Clearly no one in President Trump’s Administration has explained to him that bad trade deals, tariffs against our allies, and tax cuts for the wealthy lead to trade deficits, lost jobs, and reduced wages for average Americans. I would be glad to show President Trump around Northern Ohio so he can see firsthand how his trade policies wreak havoc upon working class communities.”

 

‘I hope this isn’t just lip service’

The Free Press was not allowed to attend Tuesday’s meeting by either the UAW or the U.S. government. Members were interviewed before and after the event.

As workers began to fill up the parking lot and dash to the union hall in 12-degree temperatures Tuesday, many said they were coming with an open mind about the two-hour meeting.

“We’re here just basically to listen,” said Chris Miller, 48, of Wayne, a Ford Michigan Assembly Plant worker. “Workers just want a level playing field with trade.”

Mark Popovich, 60, of Toledo, who works as a forklift driver at auto supplier Dana Inc., said, “I think it’s great we’re going to sit down, so we can voice our concerns about what’s going on in the United States and the auto industry. We want jobs to come back to the United States.”

Workers from both GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly and Warren transmission plants — two of the factories set to be idled — took part in the discussion. More than four dozen members left the union hall declining to comment on the visit.

Eddie Merrell, 49, of Toledo, works at Detroit Manufacturing Systems and said, “I hope this isn’t just lip service.”

For hours, members questioned Lighthizer, touching on health care and competitive wages and the roles of Mexico and Canada under the revised North American Free Trade Agreement.

Adam Glenn, 37, who works at the Sterling Stamping Plant, said, “Our goal is to stop moving jobs to Mexico and Canada. And tariffs push costs to the consumer.”

He added, “I had an open mind when I came in, but when (Lighthizer) started talking, I got frustrated. We can’t get answers. We just want more answers and clarification. They’re kind of skimming over everything.”

Popovich, who worked for Hostess for 24 years before he lost his job with its bankruptcy in 2012, said he knows what it’s like to struggle.

“I know the devastation those workers are going to have. It’s going to be tough. The plant in Lordstown closes Friday,” he said of the plant in Ohio that is ending production of the Chevrolet Cruze small car.

He said his wish is that Lighthizer take labor’s concerns back to Trump.

But Vannice Boyles of, 57, of Ypsilanti, who works at Faurecia, referred to as the old Ford Saline plant, said he’s not so sure about what the future holds.

“When you look at the job closures, there were no real answers towards how they will assist us,” he said after the meeting.

Lighthizer declined to comment after the 2 1/2 hour meeting.

Bernie Ricke, president of UAW Local 600, represents more than 30,000 active and retired UAW members from the Ford Rouge complex, AK Steel, truck drivers, parts suppliers and health and technology professionals. He declined to comment Tuesday.

 

UAW president’s official statement 

Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the UAW, released the following official statement on behalf of UAW President Gary Jones:

“This was an opportunity for Ambassador Robert Lighthizer and his staff to meet and hear UAW leadership and workers who have seen their work and communities devastated by the failed NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). We welcome the dialogue and continue to advocate for a ‘new’ NAFTA that will be a good deal for working people by lifting wages in the United States and creating more good jobs.

“While some progress has been made, it is clear from current auto company investments abroad that more work needs to be done to make this agreement enforceable and meaningful to our members and their job security. We urge the administration and Congress to finally create a trade agreement that provides working Americans the job security future they deserve.”

Trump has urged Congress to approve the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which includes these key revisions of NAFTA affecting the auto industry:

• To avoid tariffs, vehicles are to have 75 percent of their components manufactured in one of the three countries. That was 62.5 percent under NAFTA.

• Workers paid at least $16 an hour must make 40-45 percent of the parts in a vehicle. According to Vox.com, Mexico has agreed to give workers the right to union representation and protect women from discrimination.

Neither the UAW nor Rachel McCleery, Ford government affairs spokeswoman, would comment on whether Lighthizer toured a factory during his Michigan trip. People familiar with the trade official’s itinerary confirmed he did tour the Rouge plant, where the bestselling F-150 and Raptor trucks are built.

The UAW has been vocal about its support of Trump’s tough talk on trade while at the same time pushing for more details.

The Detroit-based labor union represents about 156,000 autoworkers at General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and later this year renegotiates its contracts with the Detroit carmakers.

On the Senate floor Tuesday night, Brown slammed Trump for failing to act to help Lordstown workers after making false promises to workers and families in the Mahoning Valley and boasting about auto jobs coming to Ohio as Lordstown workers are set to lose their jobs.

Brown called Trump’s remarks last week a slap in the face to Lordstown workers, and again called on the president to step up and join the effort to save the jobs of Lordstown workers.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Norwalk Reflector staff and Benjamin Raven of MLive.com in Walker, Mich. (TNS) contributed to this story.

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©2019 Detroit Free Press

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